Again Guernica and Lesson at MoMA
Again I stand before the frame
where Picasso in the aftershock
multiples a woman
deconstructs a face
pries open her story
in cubed space
Again I wince before the flower
of baked bones Madrid
bursts on streets
scatter like quince
Again I watch Madrid
mother and child gape
in open-mouthed surprise
a dead soldier upholds a defiant
fist to maddened skies
Ah Picasso's irreverent brush
tells and foretells
a century of scalding skies
cyclones of ash
frantic elbows of the lifeless
The horns of astonished bulls
poke through a canvas
of pity and sorrow
Lesson at MoMA
A witness of many seasons
I need no map to find my way
back to the Guernica
the bull kneeling
horns poised against the eye
on the marble floor
a student at fevered work
her cheek a curved muleta
a red cape of hair shuddering
on one shoulder
She leans on a pad of folded knees
sketching a ziggurat of limbs
a howling beast
the mother comforting
an openmouthed dead child
the soldier's hand a broken sword
a cubed flower of baked bones
yields to a mad sky
Still grasping a charcoal stick
The artist sneaks her wrist
over wet lids
I stand coveting
the black tear
on a young cheek
Copyright 2012 by Lou Barrett
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
Ekphrastic poems, like the two submitted this month by Lou Barrett, respond to other works of art. The word comes to us from the Greek meaning "description", though even the early canonical example of the genre, Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn", moves beyond the urn's mere description to the poet's responses and his enlarged general conclusion that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."
Today ekphrastics include a variety of approaches: imaginative flights, such as dramatic monologue; or cultural reinterpretations, for example, through the lens of feminism; or meditations on the fate or history of a piece (how did the Elgin marbles wind up in the British Museum and why are they still there?). In general, the underlying theme of these poems is how the artwork affected the poet, how the piece has changed them, or perhaps changed the world.
It may be helpful to think of ekphrastics as a genre as opposed to a form. In other words, there are no strict rules or guidelines, but there are qualities and conventions. The most obvious among these concern how to guide the reader to the poem's inspiration. After all, it is rare that a publication will run the referent image in conjunction with the poem. To do so can be harder than it might first appear, with the need to acquire rights and permissions standing in a well-intentioned publisher's way.
An exception helpful to our discussion here is the always-interesting online poetry journal, Poemeleon, which ran an ekphrastic issue in the winter of 2006.
A quick flip through its contents reveals the most common ways allusions are made. This is because the allusion is almost always made prior to the end of the first stanza in order to firmly ground the reader. Poems are frequently titled with the name of the work of art, as our contributor has done in his first poem, "After Guernica". Another strategy is to use an epigraph such as "after Leda, sculpture, Fernando Botero" as Wendy Taylor Carlisle has done in her poem, "Her Husband". Sometimes it is the artist's name that is invoked, perhaps as a direct address, as in Andrena Zawinski's "Impressions En Plein Air", or in the title or epigraph.
Are there ekphrastics that don't allude? Consider Ren Powell's poem, "A Strange Woman". Here we have a piece inspired by a little-known artwork with no specific attribution. Therefore, from the poet's point of view, it is an ekphrastic. But from the reader's?
I'm going to venture not. Frankly, as a reader it is not important to me where a poet gets inspiration. What matters to me is what the poem communicates in the end. In my opinion, a vital part, if not the essence, of what an ekphrastic has to offer is a shared experience of a work of art. Without that, though the poem may be excellent, I would not classify it as an ekphrastic.
For this reason, I found Maureen Alsop's choice of the Helga pictures affecting. Certainly it is true that not every reader is going to know about the treasure trove of paintings found in Andrew Wyeth's attic. However, poetry readers are not your average readers; many have an active interest in other arts. The Helga pictures were quite the art world sensation for a time. In evoking them, Alsop restricts her audience, yes, but she offers a satisfying sense of intimacy and companionability to those in the know. Poet and reader are going to stand together and converse about these fascinating objects. To my mind, therein is the appeal of an ekphrastic.
Now obviously, poets are inspired by works of art of all types, famous, infamous and obscure. Works that are all already whole unto themselves; they do not need a poem to make them more complete. So the poem, to be worthwhile, must shed a new light upon the work.
The first step toward this goal is striking the correct balance between description and interpretation. An obscure piece will require significantly more description than one that a reader can easily locate on the Internet. Such description may weigh the poem down, or simply make it confusing. In revision, one must ask if the allusion is actually adding to the finished product. There is nothing wrong with simply removing the pointers to the poem's inspiration and letting it breathe on its own.
At the other extreme, why describe the Mona Lisa? Simply grabbing the coattails of an important work will not, in itself, result in an important poem. The key to a worthwhile ekphrastic of an iconic work is finding a fresh—and more importantly, expressive—strategy or insight.
That is the challenge this month's contributor faced. "Guernica" is possibly Pablo Picasso's most famous work and definitely one of the most well-known masterworks of the twentieth century. What new view can our poet offer?
It is a challenge worthy of at least two attempts, and Barrett has made a good start. "Again Guernica" tries to help the reader see this familiar image better or anew by illuminating it with description. Despite strong diction choices ("the flower/of baked bones"; "Buttonhooks/scatter like quince"; "frantic elbows of the lifeless") the project of describing an iconic piece in a way that provides fresh insight is exceedingly hard.
Though not completely impossible: allow me to present a counterexample. Consider Mary Alexandra Agner's poem, "Under the Waves off Kanagawa", in Poemeleon. Certainly Hokusai's woodblock print sometimes called "The Great Wave" comes as instantly to mind as "Guernica" if not more so. So, to describe it, Agner offers her notion that the wave looks like a grasping hand. Each detail not only supports the conceit but is also original in its description (clothes "the color of depth"; "pale and creased" boats).
In revising "After Guernica", one approach would be to conjure an overarching conceit upon which to hang each descriptive phrase. In Agner's piece, the wave equals a hand. For "Guernica", the fractured chaos = x. Barrett's job would be to do the algebra.
Or maybe not. Perhaps the more expressive approach would be something like "Lesson at MoMA", a narrative poem in which depicts not the painting itself, but a young artist's response to it. Here, the description of the painting does not enter the poem until the eighth line of the second stanza, with "a ziggurat of limbs".
Notice how specific the next seven lines are to Guernica, unlike the lines "multiples a woman/ deconstructs a face" or "horns of astonished bulls" from "After Guernica" which might be applied to any number of works by Picasso. Personally, I find the seven lines just cited ample—actually more than ample—to evoke a work as readily recognized as Guernica.
It is always worthwhile to ask, when revising a narrative, where is the best beginning? Although we often compose our first drafts with a beginning, middle, and end, the goal for the final draft is to pique and invite the reader in the first few lines. Some poets talk about finding the place where the poem begins to pulse—where it becomes most lively. (For a demonstration of this see Critique Corner, August 2010.)
Where the narrative begins, obviously, affects where it ends. Bear in mind that the word "verse"—even in the expression "free verse"—originally meant "to turn". Poems, especially narrative poems, frequently leave us off in a different place from where we began.
So Barrett might, for example, skip the preamble and open with the student. Next he could describe the painting and then turn the poem to his own response, tucking in the most meaningful information from the original first stanza thus:
"I, a witness of many seasons,
stand coveting the black tear on a young cheek"
Another strategy would be to begin with the painting, move to the student, and finally to the poet. As we have seen, most ekphrastics ground the reader in the context of the painting by the end of the first stanza. Of course, Barrett could accomplish this with his title or with an epigraph. Alternatively, though, he could select a phrase from "After Guernica", for example, "A Century of Scalding Skies", or even, "Again", as a title. In either case, he could certainly mine "After Guernica" for its finest diction, most specific to the particular painting.
One advantage to this strategy is that I, as a reader, am asked to bring my knowledge of "Guernica" and its storied history to my reading, inviting my participation much as the poem on the Helga paintings did. But that is not the main reason I am advocating for the narrative strategy taken in "Lesson at MoMA". Both poems, at heart, convey a sad weariness of humankind's endless warring. "Again Guernica" states it whereas "Lesson at MoMA" dramatizes it, or, as the overused writing adage goes, one tells, the other shows. Sometimes there are reasons adages are overused.
Where could poems like "Again Guernica" and "Lesson at MoMA" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Split This Rock Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by November 1
Prizes up to $500 for "poems of provocation and witness" from a festival sponsored by progressive think tanks in Washington, DC; enter online
Postmark Deadline: November 15
Georgia Poetry Society gives prizes up to $75; no simultaneous submissions
Anita McAndrews Award Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Poets Beyond Borders gives prizes up to $100 for published or unpublished poems relating to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
These poems and critique appeared in the October 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques